The politics of crisis in the EU: can the coronavirus pandemic bring Europe closer together?

Europe's World

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Zachary McGuinness
Zachary McGuinness

Communications Assistant at Friends of Europe

The coronavirus crisis is shaping up to be a major test for the legitimacy of the European Union and the credibility of the European project more broadly. The pandemic already comes at a vulnerable moment for the EU. A decade of successive crises – from the euro, to migration, to Brexit – has left Europe in a fragile and weakened condition. Can Europe stagger through yet another crisis? Or will Europe as we know it break under the stress of further discord and fragmentation?

The response so far has not inspired a lot of confidence in the viability of the EU as a crisis actor, or much faith in the promise of European solidarity. The symbolism of member states refusing export of medical equipment, the lack of coordination on border closings and lockdowns, or of the Commission president dismissing coronabonds as “just a slogan,” will likely reverberate long after the present crisis recedes, particularly among states like Italy or Spain which have been hit especially hard by the virus. Already early polls show a big drop in Italians who view the EU favourably or consider EU membership an advantage. For the EU, unlike national governments it seems, there is no such ‘rally around the flag effect.’

On the one hand, it is understandable why national governments would jump out ahead and jealously guard their prerogatives over the areas of health and security. Many have heralded the coronavirus crisis as the return of the nation-state, which is true except insofar as this suggests the nation-state ever went away in the first place. Nation-states reassert themselves in times of crisis, because it is through nation-states that people seek refuge from the risks and dangers of the modern world, whether they be the dislocations of globalisation, or the spread of an invisible virus.

The idea of Europe as a vehicle for solidarity coexists uneasily with the reality of how democratic politics plays out in the EU

On the other hand, the whole point of the EU is to seek to transcend the limitations of this approach, to pool together resources when a crisis situation like this requires. Defenders of the EU will no doubt point to the fact that public health, national security, and fiscal policy are not under the purview of the EU but are rather national responsibilities. They will emphasize the institutional limits of the Commission or the complex decision-making procedures of the Council. They will argue that the Brussels is not really to blame but merely a convenient scapegoat for national leaders to deflect from the inadequacies of their own countries.

But that is precisely the point. The EU reflexively hides behind its procedures and its traditional role as a depoliticised actor when brave political decisions are needed. The EU has difficulty reconciling the competing imperatives of European integration. There is the EU of rules and institutions – the technocratic EU that negotiates transport policy or hammers out trade agreements; there is also an EU of ideas and interests  – the aspirational EU that embodies shared values and solidarity, the EU as a “geopolitical actor,” to use the parlance of the current Commission.

To get lost in the legal morass of procedures and bureaucracies and institutional responsibilities – as Brussels so often does – is to lose sight of the bigger picture. Much of the legitimacy of the European idea resides in the idealism associated with the broader European project. If the EU is not just a set of rules, but about helping its members in times of need, then scenes of states hoarding medical supplies, refusing cross-border patients, or unilaterally closing borders call into question the very raison d’être of the European construction. What is the point of all the web of institutions and rules and obligations if the EU is unable to discharge one of the essential reasons for its being – to bring European countries together in times of crisis in common cause and purpose?

Of course, the idea of Europe as a vehicle for solidarity coexists uneasily with the reality of how democratic politics plays out in the EU. In practice, decisions are often hashed out behind closed doors by national politicians, with domestic and electoral politics in mind. But with no unitary executive that can be held directly accountable by citizens, Europe often struggles to justify consequential political choices to voters. Luuk van Middelaar, in his acclaimed book Alarums & Excursions, has argued that over the last decade, the EU Council in special sessions has improvised its way to some sort of legitimacy, but with the heads of government now meeting virtually, and politicians like Angela Merkel in self-quarantine, who takes on this role now? Who speaks for Europe? Such is the dilemma of the coronavirus.

The tendency is for euro-optimists and eurosceptics alike to see the situation with a lens that validates their previous predilections

The problem of Europe is that in the rapid drive towards ‘ever closer political union’, institutional capability and democratic accountability have failed to keep pace. The EU is both too far advanced on the path to political and economic integration to reverse course, but still too weak and fragmented to move closer still. As a crisis actor, the EU takes on some of the expectations of a state, but is woefully unprepared and in any case not entrusted to discharge the functions of a state. The political and geographic divides that run through the continent have led people to have very different ideas of what they want out of the EU. The upshot is a Europe that pleases almost no one: a Europe that both does too little, and a Europe that does too much. Hence in a moment like this, the tendency is for euro-optimists and eurosceptics alike to see the situation with a lens that validates their previous predilections.

This tension comes to a head in the eurozone. The flaws in the single currency that revealed themselves devastatingly in the Greek debt crisis are now beginning to reemerge in new form, given the huge strains the coronavirus shutdowns have inflicted on the economy. Where the EU may yet pull together still and restore faith in the notion of solidarity is how it manages the economic fallout from COVID-19. Not only must the eurozone put together a coordinated fiscal response – whether in the form of a coronabond or some other financial instrument – it must also tend to the politics of the North-South split, with concerns of moral hazard on one side, resentment of conditionality on the other. Once again, the fate of the EU and the fortunes of the euro are intertwined, and once again, it may require brinkmanship politics and the prospect of calamity to do what it takes to salvage Europe.

The coronavirus has exposed a crisis of leadership and vision in Europe. For Europe to emerge from this crisis with its reputation intact, let alone its institutions strengthened, requires political leaders to have an honest conversation with citizens – to shape and not just react to public opinion – and to make hard political choices. “Crises are the great unifier,” Jean Monnet, one of the EU’s founding fathers once said. This proposition has certainly been called into question over the past decade of crises, and is being put to the  test yet again.

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